Influencing legislation, informing debate and improving public understanding of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Bristol
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypePolitical
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Policy and Administration, Political Science
Law and Legal Studies: Law
Summary of the impact
A new procedure for defining UK Parliamentary constituencies was strongly
influenced by research led and directed by Professor Ron Johnston of the
University of Bristol. The Parliamentary Voting System and
Constituencies Act, 2011, created new rules for the redistribution
of seats and also reduced the size of the House of Commons from 650
Members to 600. Throughout the proceedings, from initial meetings with the
Conservative Party to completion of the legislation, Johnston was a key
advisor to all three main political parties, civil servants, MPs
(including a House of Commons Select Committee), the Boundary Commissions
and members of the House of Lords (in whose debates his advice was cited
on several occasions). He co-authored reports, gave oral evidence, and
advised individuals. His expertise was called upon by the media during the
debates on the Bill, to explain its intricacies and the many amendments.
For this work, Johnston received the Political Studies Association's
`Political Communicator of the Year' award in 2011.
Ron Johnston has been leading research on the procedures for defining UK
Parliamentary constituencies, and their impact on election results, for
some 35 years — and for the last 18 at the University of Bristol. He has
directed a team comprising himself, Dr. David Rossiter and Prof Charles
Pattie (University of Sheffield) and has also collaborated with colleagues
at the University of Plymouth on measuring electoral bias, and with Prof
Iain McLean (University of Oxford).
In 1981 Johnston and Rossiter wrote a computer program that generated a
configuration of constituencies for Sheffield as an alternative to that
proposed by the Boundary Commission, and which the Commission subsequently
adopted. The program's potential was recognised by the Labour party, and
Johnston and Rossiter were expert witnesses in the case leading party
members brought against the Boundary Commission for England in 1982-3.
During the Fourth Periodic redistribution (1990-95) Johnston was
contracted by five Essex local authorities to devise and present at Public
Inquiry a non-partisan alternative set of constituencies to the
Commission's provisional recommendations for the county; the Assistant
Commissioner recommended that it should replace the Commission's
proposals, advice that was accepted.
In 1995, when he joined Bristol, Johnston led a major grant to study the
Fourth Periodic redistribution, with Pattie and Rossiter as
co-investigators. The grant had three major outcomes:
i) A book, The Boundary Commissions , widely referenced as the
standard work on the UK Commissions, comprising a history of
redistributions since 1832, detailed quantitative analyses of the
outcomes, and material from interviews with all the Fourth Review's main
ii) A method to analyse bias in UK election results — the degree to which
one party is advantaged in the allocation of seats relative to vote share.
Bias was much greater in 1997, 2001 and 2005 than previously and favoured
Labour rather than the Conservatives (the beneficiaries in previous
decades). The method's algebra isolated the various factors (all
geographical) contributing to the bias . These findings were widely
cited and used, for example, in the critique of the UK electoral system in
the 1998 report of the Independent Commission on the Electoral System —
see David Lipsey's (a Commission member) article in The Economist
(29 Oct., 1998) — and were the basis of Johnston's 2003 presentation to
Conservative MPs and peers, after which the party proposed to change the
rules for redistributions.
iii) An alternative set of `Rules for Redistribution', more coherent and
explicit in the relative importance of the criteria than the then-current
legislation. These were revised and incorporated in a 2006 Report to the
Committee on Standards in Public Life [A].
That alternative set of rules stimulated a 2007 draft Conservative Bill
debated in the House of Lords. Johnston and his colleagues identified
shortcomings in this nascent legislation , in particular showing that
contrary to the Conservative Party's then understanding, variations in
constituency electorates had only a minor impact on bias at recent
Since enactment of the Bill in 2011, Johnston has reviewed the Boundary
Commissions' implementation of the new `Rules for Redistribution'. A
detailed evaluation of their proposals  was widely publicised by Parliamentary
Affairs and the University of Nottingham School of Politics and
International Affairs blog, and was heavily cited by Lord Lipsey and
Baroness Taylor in a House of Lords debate (12 July 2012). An evaluation
was also published with Iain Mclean on the likely impact of proposals for
individual electoral registration; Johnston addressed a meeting on this
latter issue in the House of Commons (18 January 2012). Further papers
evaluating the new public consultation procedure have been accepted for
These evaluations showed that: (i) academic commentators and the
Commissions had rightly argued that this first redistribution under the
new rules would be far more disruptive of the constituency map than both
previous reviews and MPs had anticipated; (ii) the disruption was
especially great in urban England; (iii) the political parties dominated
the new public consultation procedure as much as under its predecessor;
(iv) if the changes had been introduced before the 2010 election the
Conservatives might have had a majority of 79 over Labour (in a smaller
House) rather than 48; and (v), if implemented before 2015, individual
electoral registration will be very disruptive on the next review.
References to the research
1. D J Rossiter, R J Johnston and C J Pattie: The Boundary
Commissions: Redrawing the UK's Map of Parliamentary Constituencies.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999, 429pp. (ISBN 0-7190-5083-9)
2. R J Johnston, C J Pattie, D Dorling and D J Rossiter: From Votes
to Seats: the Operation of the UK Electoral System since 1945.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001, 241pp. (ISBN 0-7190-5851-1)
3. R J Johnston, I McLean, C J Pattie and D J Rossiter, `Can the Boundary
Commissions help the Conservative party? Constituency size and electoral
bias in the United Kingdom', The Political Quarterly, 80, 2009,
479-494. doi 10.1111/j.1467-923X.2009.02053.x
4. G Borisyuk, C Rallings, M. Thrasher and R J Johnston `Parliamentary
constituency boundary reviews and electoral bias: how important are
variations in constituency size?', Parliamentary Affairs, 63,
2010, 4-21. doi 10.1093/pa/gsp016
5. M Balinski, R J Johnston, I McLean and H P Young: Drawing a New
Constituency Map for the United Kingdom: the Parliamentary Voting System
and Constituencies Bill, 2010, London: The British Academy, 2010,
104pp. (ISBN978-0-85672-591-3) (9 citations)
6. D J Rossiter, R J Johnston and C J Pattie `Representing people and
representing places: community, continuity and the current redistribution
of Parliamentary constituencies in the UK' Parliamentary Affairs
*Citation numbers as of 15 August 2013 on Google Scholar.
• Johnston and Pattie (1995-1998) The Parliamentary Boundary
Commissions, The Leverhulme Trust, £50,280.
• Pattie (Listed as PI) and Johnston (2011-2014) A new
electoral map for the UK, The British Academy, £7,460 (grant
Details of the impact
In October 2009, Eric Pickles, then Conservative Party Chairman, informed
a small group of experts (including Johnston) that should it win power in
2010 the party intended to legislate to reduce the number of MPs and both
speed up and increase the frequency of Boundary Commission reviews. The
experts provided detailed advice about the proposed Rules for
Redistribution and their implementation, plus public consultation
procedures. Johnston's role in the next two years leading to enactment of
the 2011 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011,
involved advice to all three British political parties based on detailed
studies of the entire process during the three previous redistributions;
he led in providing evidence in Parliament, including interpreting
amendments, as well as communicating with politicians and party officials,
the media and other organisations. His research findings were disseminated
through books, peer-reviewed journal articles, commissioned reports,
conferences, private consultations, invited advice to the Conservative
Party and the coalition government, oral evidence to the House of Commons
Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and presentations to The
Constitution Unit and the HS Chapman Society; his evidence was heavily
cited in Parliamentary debates.
In 2010, when it was clear that the Conservatives would proceed with the
proposed legislation, Johnston was invited to co-author a monograph for
the British Academy Policy Centre setting the proposals in context and
critiquing the Bill when it was published; for this he chaired a British
Academy Forum attended by a wide range of interested parties including the
civil servants overseeing drafting of the legislation. The Bill was
published in July 2010 and the monograph , for which he was the main
author, in September; it was widely cited in the House of Commons and,
especially, Lords debates, as was the evidence presented in Johnston's two
appearances before the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and
Constitutional Reform. Johnston also wrote an article on British
redistributions on the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network website [B], which
is aimed at election administrators and system designers.
Johnston's research and advice over the period 2009-2013 has had three
types of impact:
I. It was influential in the crafting of the legislation.
A Conservative party advisor said that "...those of us within the
Conservative Party who were involved in this process, regarded [Johnston]
as one of the key touchstones for advice and views in relation to
achieving our objectives" [C]. As an example of his influence, Johnston
advocated that the party look to the comparable Australian and New Zealand
systems: "This had a marked influence on what we did, both in terms of me
pursuing discussions with the Australian High Commission and New Zealand
High Commission, and in the preparation of material so that I entered
these discussions with authoritative analyses to support me" [C].
Though the legislation was prepared by Parliamentary draftsmen, the
adviser crafted the outline and detail of what the Party wanted to achieve
and "...material [Johnston] authored or co-authored and [his] oral
contributions were useful in the preparation of the legislation itself,"
II. It shaped and informed political debate.
Johnston's research, particularly the British Academy publication ,
helped inform MPs and peers. One peer stated that this research enabled
him to grasp what was going on and led him to put down several amendments
that were effectively accepted by government:
"This is a rare case of meticulous factual research strongly affecting a
crucial national decision: I should also add that the willingness of Ron
and his colleagues to make themselves available to advise added greatly to
the effect of their work on this debate" [D].
Johnston gave oral evidence to the House of Commons Political and
Constitutional Reform Committee in July 2010 [E] and February 2011 [F].
During the five months it was before Parliament, he was frequently
consulted about aspects of the Bill and the wording of potential
amendments proposed by both Conservative party advisers involved with the
Bill's progress and peers from both of the other main parties; his advice
was non-partisan regarding the changed rules' likely impact. His published
work was referred to and given as evidence in debates in both the House of
Lords [G-H] and the House of Commons [I].
III. It improved public understanding of the changes being debated.
Johnston gave a number of media interviews regarding the Bill, helping to
improve public understanding of the changes being debated in Parliament,
and provided clarity in several political blogs, including those of The
London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of
Nottingham School of Politics and International Affairs. His interviews
included BBC Radio 4's PM, The World This Weekend and The
Westminster Hour program, and BBC Points West.
The Secretary of the Boundary Commission for England stated that
Johnston's work "filled the void of experts" and "turned speculation to
fact" in what was a complex process;[J] he `helped the process along by
providing an impartial point of view" that helped to stress the
impartiality of the Commission's work. [J].
In November 2011, Johnston received the Political Studies Association's
`Politics/Political Studies Communicator' Award. The jury of distinguished
academics and journalists stated that his work with on boundary changes
had made "a considerable contribution not only to political studies, but
has also helped shape the future of British Politics". They stated further
that Johnston "stands out as a clear communicator who has the capacity to
communicate complex issues in an accessible manner" [K].
Together, this material influenced debates regarding the operation of the
UK's electoral system, especially the biased electoral outcomes post-1992,
and was a stimulus to change. The understanding of how constituency maps
are drawn influenced discussions among those who wanted change; the
principles underlying and the ordering of the 2010 revised set of `Rules
for redistributions' reflects his important input. Once the proposals
became public, his expertise was frequently called on to inform those
debating their enactment, and influenced several of the agreed amendments.
That system for defining constituencies is thus based to a significant
extent on his long programme of research into this aspect of British
The Review initiated by the 2011 Act was delayed for five years in early
2013. Johnston and his colleagues interpreted this decision — and its
likely consequences — in a range of media and other contributions [L]. He
has since been consulted by political parties preparing material for their
2015 general election manifestos regarding possible further amendments to
In 2013 Johnston joined the advisory committee for a four-year major Law
Commission project aimed at rationalising, simplifying and modernising the
UK's complex set of electoral laws [M]. He has also acted as an expert
adviser on electoral systems to the governments of Bermuda, Jersey, New
Zealand, and Portugal.
Sources to corroborate the impact
A. D. Butler and I. McLean (2006) Report to the Committee on
Standards in Public Life: The Electoral Commission and the
Redistribution of Seats. Department of Politics and International
Relations, University of Oxford, Oxford.
B. R. Johnston, D. Rossiter and C. Pattie. United Kingdom:
Redistribution Process. Ace: The Electoral Knowledge Network. [http://aceproject.org/regions-en/countries-and-territories/GB/case-studies/united-kingdom-redistribution-process/?searchterm=johnston,
accessed 15 August, 2013].
C. Senior Policy Advisor, The Conservative Party). Letter to R. Johnston.
December 4, 2012.
D. Member of the House of Lords, Labour. Email to N. Temple. November 21,
E. Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (27th July
2010) Minutes of Evidence, Parliamentary Voting System and
Constituencies Bill. Questions 57-59, 60-79, 80-99, 100-108.
[Accessed 15 August, 2013,
F. Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (10th
February 2011) Minutes of Evidence, Parliamentary Voting System.
Question Numbers 45-78. [Accessed 15 August 2013,
G. Hansard — House of Lords debate (8 Feb 2011) Parliamentary Voting
System and Constituencies Bill Report (2nd day). Columns
accessed 15 August, 2013].
H. Hansard — House of Lords debate (8 Feb 2011), cols.127-1
accessed 15 August 2013].
I. Hansard — House of Commons debate (1 Nov 2010) Parliamentary
Voting System and Constituencies Bill [1st allocated day].
accessed 15 August 2013].
J. Secretary to the Boundary Commission for England (interview with
Nicola Temple, 5 Dec 2012, audio file of interview available on request).
K. The Political Studies Association Annual Awards.
accessed December 2, 2012].
L. LSE British Politics blog, In Depth: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/30989?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+BritishPolitics
AndPolicyAtLse+%28British+politics+and+policy+at+LSE%29, accessed 15
August 2013 ].
Accessed 15 August 2013].